I stood in front of my first class in 1988, whilst serving in the Womens Royal Naval Service…
It was a ‘Popmobility’ class for my fellow on-watch personal and consisted of a motley crew of sailors and wrens who usually did circuit training. I had been going to a class at the Mountbatten Centre in Portsmouth, copied the routine and produced a mix cassette tape of the same music, it was a good rainy day alternative to our lunchtime, outdoor circuit training. I did not know it back then, but that was my first step on the path to teaching fitness and exercise for a living and if anyone had told me that I would become a yoga teacher, I would have laughed my head off!
After leaving the WRNS I took a job in IT and one day whilst away for a week on a residential course for work, I offered to share that same mix tape with other colleagues on my course. We were all feeling the effects of sitting in lectures and needed to move, so we took ourselves into the garden with a boogie box and my tape and I shared my routine.
Unbeknown to me I was being watched by the company Training Manager and at the end of the session, he asked if I would run a class at work for staff. I explained that I was not a qualified teacher, just loved sharing my workout and he asked if I would consider getting qualified at the company’s expense! It was a no-brainer, I took that opportunity, became a qualified exercise to music teacher and the rest is history….
Since that time I have continued to teach, leaving IT to forge a new career in exercise and fitness, which included Leisure Centre Management at Basingstoke Sports Centre, running a GP Referral Exercise on Prescription Programme for Southampton City Council, working as a Health Promotion Specialist for the NHS in Winchester and Basingstoke with a lead for Physical Activity, Phase IV coaching at Cardiac Rehab, teaching hundreds of classes for Alton Sports Centre and finally running my own business teaching Pilates and yoga classes, personal training, offering Thai Yoga Massage and my newest passion – Myofascial Release Therapy.
My background in exercise and fitness did not lend itself to a smooth passage through yoga teacher training and this has led me to believe that there are two distinct camps in yoga teaching – those who follow the traditional prescribed path and those who challenge the classical approach to make sense of it in a modern day setting.
After my first year out of teaching I wrote a BLOG to share my thoughts on yoga, highlighting some of the struggles that I had been faced with in my quest to understand where I fitted into the yoga arena. After stepping away from my ‘hamster wheel’ lifestyle. I had had time to think and to properly be alone with my thoughts, processing feelings that I had not had the time for, or the headspace to acknowledge before. At the time of writing that BLOG I was in a very confused place with my own yoga practice and getting used to not having that strong all-consuming influence in my life in the way that it had been previously. My physical practice pretty much disappeared and mindfulness became my primary focus.
I was back to struggling with the wholeness of yoga because the traditional approach to the practice of asana for me was unresolved. With another year to contemplate my own thoughts, I have come to realise that my focus had remained narrowed because teaching asana had been such a challenge.
I had been led to believe for so long that my fitness background was a hindrance rather than a good supportive base for my yoga teaching, but through 15 years of working in the health and fitness industry before entering yoga teacher training, I had a natural tendency to pick apart what I was being taught, to understand it and to allow me to share it with my students. I am no academic and have struggled a little with anatomy and physiology in terms of naming muscles, but I have learned to appreciate the body’s connectivity through enlightening teachers like Gary Carter, through my Thai Yoga Massage training and through studying Myofascial Release Therapy. The more I learned about functional movement and the more time I spent analysing the postural needs of my students, the more frustrated I became with traditional asana practice.
Over time I have become very much more aware of what I consider to be harmful practices within traditional asana and it has been my background in fitness and rehabilitation which has led me to this place. I believe that having an understanding of the limitations of the traditional practice and learning how to make asana safe and effective can help us to support our students in a much more useful way. Why cling to an ancient physical practice, which so clearly does not safely and intelligently support the demands of modern day living? My own long-term back pain has always led me very carefully through my own practice and I have used this as a baseline for my teaching. It has changed the way I practice yoga and taken me to a path where the natural intelligence of the body speaks much clearer than the framework of asana that I had previously clung to so diligently.
As a newly qualified Yoga teacher I had some very interesting chats with a local physiotherapist who came to my classes and away on retreat with me and gave extremely helpful feedback regarding useful and not-so useful postures. A friend’s daughter who is an Osteopath, came to one of my early classes and took the time to explain to me why the classical approach to Triangle pose caused shearing of the spine and why reversing that same posture increased the harm! For me, this kind of relationship with other health professionals is invaluable and extremely informative.
Basic Yoga teacher training generally operates in a structured way and endeavors to offer a rounded experience of the eight limbs of yoga, but it also encourages us to believe that our own practice will guide us in teaching, that we will be shown the way by our own bodies but I do not believe that it is enough to rely on this ability. Our bodies and our ego can be devious and misleading and it is too easy to rely on choreographed frameworks and practices, we need to constantly question our regular practices and be open to new experiences. We need to put aside our own habits and preconceptions to begin the journey afresh with our students, that way we get to appreciate their struggles in a much more informed way and helps us to keep our students safe.
It has taken me a long time and a lot of training, both in the fitness arena and in yoga to feel that I am in a place where I can be more vocal – where I feel I have the confidence to speak out to critically assess this ancient system we call yoga and challenge some of the teaching I have received over the last 30 years. It is not a comfortable place to be in, but it feels more honest.
Asana has become a primary focus in Yoga practice and it has been done to death. I have met some lovely teachers who embrace the holistic nature of a rounded practice, who are offering wonderful guidance in the philosophy of yoga, in breath and mindfulness but are adhering to a framework of asana, which is harmful. How can we teach mindfulness and self-harm in the same space? Confidence is convincing and being able to hold the teaching space in a kind and supportive way is what draws our students into that space, but if we cannot unravel the physical practice effectively then we are leading our students up a path which adds to the stress of their lives and all the mindfulness in the world will not help them to find the peace and sense of self they crave.
I believe that there is a need for us all as yoga teachers to expand our experiences and education beyond traditional teachings and there are some very experienced yoga teachers like Peter Blackaby – Osteopath, who invite us to consider yoga from a modern-day perspective. Peter has written a wonderful book called ‘Intelligent yoga’ and his work as an osteopath and years of teaching yoga help to make sense of yoga in a western context, with a concise discussion on what he considers to be harmful Asana.
Gary Carter is another wonderfully inspiring teacher who specialises in teaching yoga and movement with an appreciation of the body’s complex myo-fascial connectivity, which brings the body to life from a deep knowledge base which goes way beyond traditional anatomy and physiology teaching.
Time spent in the company of such teachers can then help us to assess the traditional postures we teach and learn to be honest about and what is useful and safe for our students. When we understand more about the body’s natural connectivity, we can begin to navigate our way through traditional yoga asana practice with a fresh perspective and bring movement to life in a very different way.
There is such a lot we can do as teachers to change some of the negativity that surrounds the reputation of yoga, to make our classes more attractive to potential students and take what we have to offer beyond the perceptions of what is promoted on social media. Pictures of yogis in traditional ‘ego poses’ are in abundance, but how off-putting is that to the average person? Teachers don’t need to show off in class to impress students – it’s inspiring to the minority, demoralizing to the majority and totally unnecessary. We can avoid making the class a competition and take the pressure off ourselves and our students. Yoga has a bad enough reputation in the press and we really don’t need to add weight to the argument that yoga is damaging.
Students, have the courage to listen to your own body, do some home practice and start to appreciate that your body will try to lead you.
Your teacher is NOT responsible for your body, she/he can only lead you towards inquiry, they cannot fix you and you must not become attached to that idea. Our bodies have the capacity to heal themselves but we are all too happy to hand ourselves over to other people to fix us, and that is not possible – neither in the physical or emotional sense.
I am passionate about what I do, I love being a Yoga teacher, it is my dream job – I enjoy social interaction and I love helping people. I encourage other teachers to be open to relationships with other teachers and health professionals. We cannot be precious about what we do, yoga is a very powerful and a wonderful support system for life but we have to learn how to adapt and critically assess to be able to truly embrace that wonder and offer a more balanced perspective. We have to be bold and have the confidence to question tradition and voices of authority, we know more about the body now than we have ever done before and it is an exciting prospect to know that we will continue to learn and understand how the body wants and needs to move.